shirw'it kirtopie | potato stew

shirw'it kirtopie

I started blogging about fifteen months ago, which in some ways feels like just yesterday, and in some ways feels like ages ago. Even though I've finally gotten into a rhythm with recipe developing, and I've started to figure out my aesthetic for food styling and photography, I'm still learning new things every single day. But learning is a difficult thing to keep track of.

When I used to teach poetry and composition, I sometimes liked to give my students pre-tests and post-tests, because even after all the growing pains, I think that most of us tend not to notice when we've learned something new. In the beginning, we don't understand something, and then we intentionally work to try to understand it, but then sometimes this new knowledge becomes a part of us before we even realize it's there. And as if honest reflection wasn't already elusive enough, it's hard to remember what it was like to not understand something once you do understand it.

Daily journaling (about both disasters and successes) helps me understand my growth in a somewhat concrete way, but sometimes it feels like I'm just simplifying a process that's mostly complex and messy. At the end of the day, I think it's just difficult to talk about your own learning in a meaningful way. But that's the beauty of pre-tests—even though the tests themselves don't demonstrate the complexity of what you've learned, they're at least quantifiable proof that you have in fact learned something. And even though this is not the most beautiful thing I've ever photographed, this post about shirw'it kirtopie (potato stew) is the closest thing I've got to a successful pre- and post-test for food styling and photography.

shirw'it kirtopie
shirw'it kirtopie

Last summer, when I was a few months into blogging, I decided to cook and photograph my grandmother's shirw'it kirtopie. The recipe is super straightforward and easy enough, but I had a really hard time styling and photographing it, and I didn't even end up saving the photos because they were just so terrible (although now I wish I had!).

But I totally remember what went wrong. I couldn't get the lighting right (because at the time, I was just flying by the seat of my pants, trying to figure out how to light food as I went along), and so the sauce looked kind of murky and colorless. Also, I decided to use colorful blue potatoes, which ended up totally washed out after everything simmered together. And it didn't help that I cut the pieces of meat way too large, and they looked super clumsy next to the big chunks of blue potato. And, more generally, while it's one of my favorite foods, I couldn't really see what was pretty about potato stew, which made it really hard to figure out how to style and photograph it.

Lots of these problems took several months of practice to work out, like the lighting, which I won't go into, because it's kind of boring and technical (but mostly just boring). Plus, it's especially hard to explain what you've learned when it's not just a simple trick. But on the other hand, a few of these problems had very easy fixes, and as it turns out, sometimes it's actually possible to distill a learning experience into an easy tip (e.g., duh! no blue potatoes!). So here's a good one: after photographing more stews and curries, I realized that the ingredients tended to sink down into the (somewhat opaque) broth or sauce, which explains the drab, boring surface I kept getting. And here's how I now like to fix it: I place a wooden spoon under the meat and veggies, and then I pump them to the surface sort of like the wooden spoon is a car jack. Then I carefully remove the spoon, and then take the shot.

These photos still have a long way to go, and there are certain things about them that kind of annoy me, but I'm really proud of them. After all, last year I didn't think I could take attractive photos of shirw'it kirtopie, and now I've got these photos I'm actually happy with. I'm still not one hundred percent sure exactly what I've learned, but it's nice to have proof that I learned something.

shirw'it kirtopie
shirw'it kirtopie

shirw'it kirtopie

Yield: 5 to 6 servings
Active time: 20 minutes
Total time: 2 hours
For a quicker sheet pan version, try
sheet pan kirtopie
download a PDF to print

Olive oil (not extra virgin olive oil, or use another neutral oil)
1 to 1 1/4 pounds stew meat (e.g., shank, chuck, etc.), cut into small bite-sized pieces
Salt to taste
1 medium onion diced
2 tablespoons yellow curry powder
14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes
3/4 cup water (divided into 1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)
2 cups frozen peas
1/2 to 1 whole jalapeño, minced (depending on spice preference)
1 pound potatoes, cut into large chunks
Cooked rice, for serving

  • Place a small stockpot or dutch oven over high heat for a couple minutes, and then add about 1 teaspoon of oil and swirl to coat. Add the beef, and let it sear for 2 minutes over high heat without stirring it, and then reduce the heat to medium and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until any juices have evaporated and the meat is nicely browned. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt (or to taste) while it cooks.

  • Remove the sirloin to a plate, and then reduce the heat to medium-low and add about 2 teaspoons of oil to the pan. Add the onions, season with 1/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste), and cook, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes, scraping up any bits on the bottom of the pan.

  • Add the curry powder to the onions and stir around for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, 1/2 cup water, and the browned sirloin, season to taste, and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat (scrape the bottom of the pot for a minute or so while you're waiting). Once it comes to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and continue to cook for about 45 to 90 minutes, until the beef is very tender (it will depend mostly on the size of the pieces).

  • Once the beef is tender, add the peas, jalapeños, potatoes, and 1/4 cup water and bring back up to a boil. While you're waiting for it to boil, taste it and adjust the seasoning. Once it reaches a boil, cover it, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 12 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Serve over rice.

shirw'it kirtopie

mujadara-style lentil tacos

mujadara tacos

It seems like just about every time I read up on the history of a Middle Eastern fruit or veggie, it turns out to have originated in China. So it's no surprise that most of the fruits and veggies that I need for cooking and blogging about Assyrian food are much easier (and cheaper!) to find here in Hong Kong than they are in the US. In fact, there are certain things that my grandparents grew up eating, which I never even tasted until this year—like mulberries! I can't get enough mulberries.

But while it's hard to go to a wet market and miss the giant mountains of koosa (for instance), some Middle Eastern ingredients require a little more digging. Like, I still haven't been able to find parsley in tabbouleh-level quantities for a reasonable price—each teeny tiny little pouch in the British supermarket is $3US, and it's finally almost no longer emotionally painful to shell out that much for something I'm used to buying by the bundle for $1. And while most pantry items are somewhere out there, they're not available everywhere, and almost always outrageously priced, and usually not the exact brand or variety I prefer. So whenever I come back from the US, I make a trip to my favorite Middle Eastern market, and then pack my suitcase full of tahini, pomegranate molasses, extra-fine bulgur, and all the other things I'd miss.

mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos

Most people I know here with ties to elsewhere are similarly obsessed with tracking down their favorite ingredients, which brings me to this post. My friend Mina ordered these amazing corn tortillas from LA and was kind enough to share them, so I immediately stashed them away in the freezer before enjoying them, because I knew I was going to have to come up with something delicious to really appreciate this little miracle. Then, a few weeks later, when I suddenly had a craving for something I've never had before, I immediately sprinted the four paces from the sofa to our shoebox-sized freezer (but like, knee high boot shoebox-sized), threw the tortillas in the fridge, and anxiously awaited these mujadara-style tacos.

Mujadara is a Middle Eastern lentils and rice dish, but it's really more like lentils and rice and caramelized onions. Thinly sliced onions quietly sizzle and sweat until they finally turn golden-brown, and not just a little charred on the outside, but deeply browned all the way through to their centers. Some cooks even fry a few of of the onions until they get nice and crispy (an opportunity for extra flavor and texture I'd never pass up). The caramelized onions bring so much texture and flavor to the lentils and rice. And, it turns out, they're very delicious in taco form.

mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos

More mujadara inspiration

I looked around and found even more mujadara inspiration for you guys. I'm definitely not the first to figure out that these two are a match made in heaven, and there's so much good mujadara/taco-related content
out there. Hope you enjoy!

Zena n Za'atar's Mediterranean lentil, caramelized onion, and cauliflower tacos
Dolly and Oatmeal's springy mujadara tacos with pea tendrils and leeks
Eats Well with Others' mujadara burritos
Maureen Abood's mujadara topped with an egg
Molly Wizenberg's pared down mujadara
Sarah Jampel's sheet pan mujadara

mujadara style tacos
mujadara style tacos

mujadara-style lentil tacos

download a PDF to print
see also
mujadara, mujadara french onion soup, and my mom’s lentils and rice

caramelized onions

  • 1 1/2 pounds sliced onions (from about 2 large or 3 medium onions)

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt (or to taste)

  1. Heat a wide pot (like a large dutch oven) over medium or medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Once the pan is hot, add the oil, followed by the sliced onions and salt. Stir to coat, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan every 2 or 3 minutes.* They should be loudly sizzling and turning a little bit golden, but not browning or burning on the bottom.

  2. Reduce the heat to medium-low or medium, and cook for another 20 minutes, stirring and scraping once every 5 minutes or so. They should still be audibly sizzling, but more quietly than before.

  3. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, stirring and scraping about every 10 minutes. You should still be able to hear a faint whisper of sizzling.

  4. Increase the heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring and scraping constantly for 5 to 10 more minutes. The onions are done once they have significantly deepened in color.

  5. Split the caramelized onions into 1/3 and 2/3 (2/3 for frying, 1/3 for the lentils).

fried onions

  • 1 cup olive oil (plain, not extra virgin; or use another neutral-flavored oil)

  • 2/3 of the caramelized onions

  1. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers (about 4 minutes). Carefully add a scoop or two of the caramelized onions and use tongs to spread them out into a single layer on the bottom of the pan.

  2. Cook for about 5 minutes until crispy-chewy and deeply golden brown. Before they burn or become too brittle (perhaps with your stove, sooner than 5 minutes), remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate, and add a couple more scoops of the onions to the pan, working in batches until they're all done. Discard the remaining oil.

lentils

  • 8 ounces brown or green lentils (from half a 1-pound bag)

  • Salted water for simmering

  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 1/2 teaspoons baharat *

  • The other 1/3 of the caramelized onions (the ones you didn't fry)

  • More salt to taste

  1. Bring a stockpot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Once it's boiling, add the lentils, reduce heat to maintain a simmer, and cook them until they're tender (but don't let them get mushy!). Different varieties of lentils will take different times to cook, but start testing after about 15 minutes.

  2. Once they're done, strain the lentils and rinse them really well under running water. Also rinse out the pot you cooked them in.

  3. Return the pot to medium heat and heat the olive oil for 2 minutes. Add the spices and stir for about 30 seconds. Then add the rinsed lentils and the remaining caramelized onions (the non-crunchy ones), increase the heat to medium-high, and cook stirring constantly for about 3 minutes, just to meld the flavors. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

yogurt sauce (jajik)

  • 2/3 cup plain yogurt

  • 1 garlic clove, crushed through a press

  • A few grinds black pepper

  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Whisk together the yogurt, garlic, black pepper, cilantro, olive oil, and salt.

toppings and assembly

  • Corn tortillas, warmed in the microwave or oven until soft

  • Cilantro leaves removed from their stems

  • Radishes, sliced thinly

  • Chopped tomatoes

Spoon a bit of the lentils onto a tortilla, followed by the yogurt sauce, radishes, tomatoes, cilantro, and crispy fried onions. Enjoy assembled tacos immediately (leftover individual ingredients will keep in the refrigerator for several days).

* If you don't have a baharat blend and don't feel like making one, feel free to just use the following ground spices: 3/4 teaspoon cumin, 3/4 teaspoon black pepper, 3/4 teaspoon paprika, and 1/4 teaspoon coriander.

mujadara style tacos